Interviews

Interview Series: Alex Wan, Founder of Chopstick Fest

By on February 21, 2017

We live in Vancouver, a city with rich roots in Chinese history. Yet many of us have only experienced a sliver of what Chinese culture has to offer. In an effort to bring the flavours and culture of China to more locals, Chopstick Fest was born. With the goal of helping locals discover new flavours right in their own hometown, Alex Wan and co-founder Jennifer Hau opened a new festival  – and we want to share all the details with you.

We first heard of this festival back in May, and met the team later in the summer in July. We loved the idea of helping locals discover new cultures through food – it’s what we’re all about! So with that, we signed on to be a community partner.

Chopstick Fest took place from October 15 – 30. We sat down with Alex to talk about the origins of this event, and a recap on year #1. 

Alex

How did Chopstick Fest come about?

We started the ideation of CF this time last year – February 2016. I noticed around this time that Dineout restaurants were everywhere, but they were all western restaurants. My friends and I asked ourselves, why isn’t there a Chinese based food event? We did some research and found a Chinese restaurant that joined but it was serving very westernized food. We explored it further and saw this is a great way to showcase Chinese Cuisine. We wanted to the purpose of the festival to be around education. Everything in our culture revolves around food. The first thing your grandma would say to you is “have you eaten yet?” Business deals are made at the dinner table. Food is a very important aspect of Chinese culture.

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(Image via @pickydiner)

We wanted to explore and see how we could share this culture with the greater Vancouver community. In the last 10 years there’s been a huge migration, not just from Hong Kong or Taiwan but from Mainland China. We realized a lot of the western public had a stereotype of Chinese food without knowing there are so many regions and flavours. So we set the theme around the education of Chinese food, but identifying the different types of food. Northern versus Southern, spicy Sichuan versus Hunan style of spicy foods. There are special peppercorns in the region of Scichuan – mala spicy, numbing spicy, so these peppercorns make your tongue go numb. A lot of people are addicted to this sensation.

We identified regional cuisines first, but it was very difficult because we realized many of those cuisines aren’t available here. So we targeted Chinese style BBQ, hot pot, and grilled fish. We wanted to show Vancouver that Chinese food isn’t just sweet & sour pork or kung pao chicken. We signed a restaurant called Efendi – they are a Chinese Muslim restaurant so their food was halal. The cuisine has an interesting fusion – it blends ingredients like lamb, butter, cumin. So it was interesting how they served it, with buns. It’s very common to find that type of food in China, it’s closer to the Western region – the culture is called Yughur. It’s actually Chinese food but people wouldn’t associate it as such at all. You’ll find it Western China but it’s popular all over China.

There is the cultural aspect to executing a project like this. Chinese restaurateurs are very traditional and risk averse – they don’t like experimentation. That was one of the bigger difficulties we ran into. We had to show the value of promoting the restaurant in itself. So the way we marketed it was we did it bilingually – to Chinese and English audiences.

Pickydiner

(Image via @pickydiner)

A lot of people I talk to think this idea is great and wonder why it hasn’t already been done, but it’s hard. In Chinese culture what’s important is guanxi – relationship. A lot of it is one on one, and they weren’t used to marketing events. Not that they don’t do it but a lot of it is through word of mouth, when friends refer something. That’s how a lot of restaurants operate.

How does this festival work?

The restaurant has to come up with a customized menu that they don’t usually serve or at a discount that would entice people to come in and try. That’s the first step. We try to keep the menu options to a maximum of three, so it could be a menu for two to six people. We’ll probably standardize it more this year. The reason we wanted to do it for groups is you can eat family style. It was very important for us to focus on family style restaurants. Chinese food is meant to be eaten together.

To participate in the festival, a gust would look at our website and pick a restaurant they’d like to go to. They’d see their menus on our website and pick the one they like best. A lot of the restaurants got in late and we had to design every single menu, and we released it a week in advance. We knew that was going to be our biggest issue, so next year we’re going to push the menu out as soon as possible.

Pickdiner2

(Image via @pickydiner)

How big is the team?

The team consisted of people that wanted to join as a passion project. We also included team members from my marketing agency, Periphery. It was done by ten people overall, including part time people.

What was turnout like?

This was good – we got a lot of positive responses. A restaurant owner in Richmond said it was the first time he’d seen so many Western tables. Many people were happy with that result. An issue we ran into is was the restaurants didn’t promote or offer the menu on their own – guests had to ask for it. After a while, we realized it was because the menu was at too steep a discount so they didn’t like offering it. We’ll learn from this.

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(Image via @instanomss)

What media coverage did you receive?

We were featured on CBC, Georgia Straight, Daily Hive, a lot of local blogger sites. We were mentioned on CBC radio and a few Chinese publications. Daily Hive ended up being one of our main sponsors. The demographic was exactly the one we were hoping would participate. Novus was a media sponsor, so they helped us with the production side of things. We had friends produce the videos, and Novus sponsored.

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(Image via @instanomss)

How did you structure sponsorship?

We approached it with different levels. There was the title sponsor, which was Open Road. They helped finance some of the advertising and video production. We also featured them in two of our videos, and we also did a small event with them for their clients. We also had preferred sponsors with Coke, Novus, ASPAC Development. These sponsors came on because they saw the vision and they wanted to be involved in the Chinese community.

Working with Tangoo

Tangoo helped us spread the word and ran influencer marketing campaigns to raise awareness about the festival.  We gained 20, 000 impressions and worked with nine influencers, which was a big help as it’s our first year. We both saw the vision and liked the community aspect of this.

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(Image via @bokehbites)

Any mistakes? Learnings?

Main learnings for us were around dealing with restaurants, handling personnel, and delegating operations.

What’s coming for next year?

We’d like to sign more restaurants. My vision is still to stick with Chinese food, and it’s still untapped and we can do more with it. But there are talks about expanding it to be Asian focused – Korean, Japan, Vietnam, Thai. We want to explore Asia in the future events. We wanted to do more education. This year we had to prioritize sponsorship, the logistics, signing the restaurants, and organizing the operations that the education aspect fell through. But we still want to work on that. It was tough, because I was doing this while still running my agency.

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(Image via @instanomss)

How can people help?

We’re always looking for volunteers – from graphic designers, bloggers, writers, photographers, to  people who may be able to refer us to companies that may want to get involved. 

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(Image via @sk_foodholic)

Final Thoughts…

We’re optimistic this project will grow and people get the ball rolling for next year. A lot of what we have is already set. The hardest part is raising the money and getting the restaurants. I feel confident we can do it!
A belated congratulations to Chopstick Festival for the launch of their first year! We were thrilled to take part in this and look forward to watching it blossom as the years continue.

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